Air Pollution and Respiratory Illnesses
Air quality plays a large role in respiratory health. Poor air quality can have a wide range of potential health effects depending on the type of pollutant and the amount of exposure. These health effects include causing illness or exacerbating existing health problems. Respiratory illnesses can affect anyone, but may disproportionately impact vulnerable populations, such as young children, the elderly, and the sick. The health effects caused by air pollution can have both short-term and long-term consequences.
Air pollution can cause acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) health effects. It is important to note that poor air quality can induce both acute and chronic respiratory problems, which have different symptoms.
Acute Respiratory Effects
An acute respiratory effect is an almost immediate reaction to poor air quality. The symptoms can include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, irritation of the eyes, nose, mouth, or skin. These symptoms will typically go away soon after leaving the polluted area. However, people who are more sensitive to air quality or are regularly exposed to pollution may have more serious symptoms. Some may experience loss of consciousness.
Any area with air pollution can potentially induce an acute respiratory response. Places with a lot of busy industry or traffic can have air pollution, but people should also be mindful of the pollution levels inside.
Chronic Respiratory Effects
Chronic respiratory illnesses develop as a result of repeatedly being exposed to poor air quality over time. In these cases, symptoms do not fully subside, even after leaving the polluted environment. They can cause or exacerbate health problems that affect the lungs and heart. These illnesses include:
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Lung cancer, among others.
Respiratory illnesses caused by repeated, long-term exposure to poor air quality are often due to pollution in the home, at work, or other frequently visited places.
Protecting yourself from Respiratory Illness
The best way to prevent respiratory illness is to limit exposure to air pollution, and take appropriate precautions when exposure is unavoidable. On days when air quality is bad, wear a mask, use an air filter, close the window, and avoid areas with lots of traffic. Take time to test your air quality and understand what your risks are in places where you spend a lot of time. Use proper safety equipment at work, and properly store or get rid of pollutants at home.
Air pollution comes in many forms, and you may not be able to avoid exposure completely; however, you can be proactive about monitoring your air quality and your health. Respiratory illnesses are a result of a variety of genetic, behavioral, and other medical factors; in order to understand what your specific risks are, consult with a medical professional.